Friday, December 21, 2012

The Universal Fault: Detraction

A Sky View repost:

You shall not go about spreading slander among your kinsmen; nor shall you stand by idly when your neighbor's life is at stake. I am the LORD.”

-Leviticus 19:16

“Some appear to suffer the pangs of death until they have disclosed the secrets communicated to them; as if these secrets were so many thorns that wound their very heart until they are drawn out.”

-St. Alphonsus Liguori, The True Spouse of Christ


The sin of detraction is universal in that most are guilty of it in one way or another. Gossip is the tastiest of vices because it can be done under the pretense of “concern” for the welfare of others. It may be just a subtle way of making us feel better about ourselves. But if you were to identify one characteristic which was universal among the Saints, it would be that they were careful not to indulge in useless talk about other people’s faults.

Venerable Louis of Granada once said, “Speak of the virtues of your neighbor, but be silent as to his faults.” If, in the future, you happen to be faced with a conversation which involves detraction, then consider what else this venerable man of God said: “Prudently endeavor to turn the conversation, or show by the severity of your countenance that this conversation is not pleasing to you. Beware of hearing the detractor with smiling attention, for you thus encourage him, and consequently share in his guilt.” This, no doubt, is tough to do precisely because disparaging remarks about our neighbor can be spontaneous and frequent.

Nevertheless, here are a couple of guiding principles that are hard to practice but severve as a good standard toward which we can aspire.

1. One Saint said, “Do not say something about someone in their absence that you would not say in their presence.” There are so many pious Christians who are superb with their devotions but are quick to tear down others in their absence. But as St. James wrote, “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, his religion is vain.” (James 1:26) Our Lord also said that we will have to account for every idle word and pay back every last penny.

At the very least, gossip is comprised of idle words. Quite often it involves a secret delight in others people's shortcomings. Not only that, but even when someone's virtues are considered, the person guilty of detraction will be quick to find some imperfection in it.  St. Alphonsus speaks to this when he said, “The sin of detraction is committed, not only by imputing to others what is not true, by exaggerating their defects, or by making known their hidden faults, but by also representing their virtuous actions as defective, or by ascribing them to bad motives.” Then, for our benefit, he adds the following advise: “Let if be your care always to speak well of all. Speak of others as you would wish to be spoken of by others.”

2. There are also many Christians who are confused over what gossip really is. There are legitimate conversations people must have about the misdeeds of others. In one's profession, for instance, evaluating an employee job performance can, and sometimes must, involve constructive criticism. With that said, if a person is behaving in such a way so as to undermine the common good of a family, organization or community, then those in leadership positions should address such matters to those who absolutely need to know about it. This, to be sure, is not gossip but rather a moral obligation.

There is a lot of confusion in this area by Christians who sincerely want to avoid the guilt of detraction but in doing so, they become derelict in their duty to correct others. Time and time again I see some Christians balking on their moral obligations, especially when it involves alerting rightful authorities about the misdeeds of others. Such a duty is often- but unnecessarily -accompanied by a scruple that they are gossiping.

With that said, there is always going to be shades of gray when the shortcoming of another person needs to be communicated to the appropriate party. Just ask yourself: Does this person really have to know about the faults or sins of the person I am inclined to discuss. Sometimes they do; sometimes they don’t. Furthermore, do such sins or faults cause me joy or sadness? If they cause you sadness because the sins of others is a grievance against God, then chances are you are on the right track. These leads us to the third consideration.

3. The Saints possessed an exceptional quality in that when the sins or faults of others were made known to them, they, more often than not, were sad to hear about such things. And when they could, they would try to identify some good trait- some silver lining -in those who are deemed to be unlovable. When people were disparaging the sinner, the Saints were inspired to mention something good about the person. Even if your worst enemy were to fall from grace, just keep in mind how it saddens our Lord. Such considerations were always on the forefront of saintly minds.

4. Finally, our generation- especially among Christians -struggle mightily to correct to people face-to-face. Some consider it a virtue not to say anything impolite to the offender's face- sparing him the hurt feelings -while allowing the situation to go from bad to worse. How often does the "polite Christian" spare his neighbor the discomfort of hearing constructive criticism only to criticize that same neighbor behind his back? Furthermore, by not being upfront with with a person who stands in need of correction, we deprive them the opportunity to amend themselves or even to defend themselves.

If at all possible, instead of complaining to a third party, take your grievance to the person who is the object of your displeasure. You would think that in Catholic apostolates, parishes and dioceses this virtue of "saying what you mean, and mean what you say" is practiced to a higher degree. But the fact is, detraction can be just as bad within the walls of the Church than in the secular world.

In and outside of the Church, people in the twenty-first century are extremely sensitive. They do not like to be criticized. As such, they are reluctant to be constructively critical in a face-to-face meeting with others. Instead, what often happens is that they express their discontent to people who can do little or nothing about it. This is where the sin of detraction is most clearly identified.

Detraction is a difficult vice to overcome…for nearly everyone. It requires going back to drawing board by saying to oneself: “Maybe I shouldn’t have said that. Maybe I did more harm than good.” And just as important, unnecessarily speaking about the faults of others should be brought to the confessional so that the Lord could give us the wisdom and the strength to avoid detraction. Indeed, whenever you find yourself tempted to speak of your neighbor's faults, keep the following caution from our Lord in mind: "Nothing is concealed that will not be revealed, nor secret that will not be known." (Matthew 10:26) Sooner or later, what we say behind closed doors will be made known. This consideration can go a long way in curbing our tongue!